In choosing a school for their child, Hartford parents must navigate a sea of information. Deducing the “best fit” school requires balancing a host of factors. Parents must look into the school’s curriculum, academic performance, and racial and economic diversity, among many other factors in order to make the best decision. Of great importance to every family is the logistical concern of transportation—how will my child get to and from school? To answer this question, parents must wade through the informational materials provided by Hartford Public Schools (HPS), the Regional School Choice Office (RSCO), and other third-party websites like SMARTERHartford to find what they need. From my research, I found this to be a tedious, time-consuming, and unforgiving process–and I’m a web-savvy undergraduate with an academic background in school choice. For the average parent, and particularly for underserved Hartford parents for whom the school choice process ought to best serve, it is nearly impossible to construct a well-rounded picture of their transportation options. One must look high and low to find the information they need to know if they are eligible for transportation, which zone they are in, when their child will be picked up and dropped off. And then—the kicker—they must rinse and repeat this cross-web search for each and every school in which they are interested.
For the purposes of this essay, I will focus on inter-district magnet schools. The lottery for these schools, run by RSCO, handles more than 20,000 applicants from both the city of Hartford and its suburbs. Because the original premise of magnet schools is to instigate racial diversity, and Hartford’s geography is riddled with racial segregation, a complex inter-district transportation system is at hand. Buses must cross “zones” and “districts” to bring individual lottery winners to their desired schools; yet, hard as this must be for transportation officials to coordinate, it is equally difficult for parents to see how their school choices will play out in the everyday reality of pick-up and drop-off.
Web-based materials are not the only way parents understand the transportation issue. Families can attend school-specific open houses or multi-school choice fairs hosted by RSCO. However, evidence in field notes taken at these events point to a wide information gap. At Breakthrough Magnet School’s open house, transportation was not discussed at all (NT, field notes, 2015). Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts’ delegate directed parents to the RSCO transportation guide in their choice pamhplet (CM, field notes, 2015). Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy simply stated that they provided transportation regardless of location, as per RSCO guidelines (IF, field notes, 2015). On the other end of the spectrum was REC Academy of Aerospace Engineering Elementary, whose representative gave detailed, grade-specific transportation information (AG and RU, field notes, 2015). The information offered varied so greatly from school to school; and yet, it was often parents’ first question asked of choice officials (LS, field notes, 2015).
Parents not only deserve better, more consistent information, but they need it to make the best school choice for their family. This decision should not be made lightly. When parents make the wrong choice, everyone suffers. A student might spend hours on a bus and have less time to devote to schoolwork or enriching extra-curricular activities. They might also be ineligible for bussing if they live “too close,” which might mean a two-mile walk each way in during a bleak and often dangerous Connecticut winter for those families who cannot provide their own transportation. If the school is unreachable to the parent, they might not be as involved in school organizations or functions as more mobile or local parents. This might result in attrition, which hurts the family and the school community.
The school choice system in Hartford is one buoyed by information. Parents are more likely to make the best choice for their family if they have all of their information laid out in front of them in an easy-to-understand format. Transportation is a big factor in making the best decision; for this reason, information pertaining to it must be available, accurate, and easily accessible to parents of all backgrounds.
What Parents See: Existing Transportation Materials
As it stands, parents rely primarily on information from HPS and RSCO, which is delivered via paper brochures and guides, school choice fairs, school open houses, and their websites. I focused on the latter for reasons of attainability. A parent at the beginning of this process looking for transportation information would most likely begin their search at RSCO’s transportation page.
Here, they learn that RSCO is responsible for “out of district” transportation, while the student’s home “district” is responsible for intra-district bussing. A link is available to a district map where parents can see an overview of the districts. However, the map does not allow them to interact with it and actually see into which district they fall; all that is gleaned from the map is that one is probably eligible for transportation. A legalistic document is also provided. For the most part, this yields no more than definitions and in-case-of solutions.
The most useful aspect of RSCO’s transportation website is actually a link to Capitol Region Education Council’s (CREC) own transportation website. CREC is RSCO’s transportation vendor, and their website is host to information about the actual bus routes; and yet, is only really mentioned in a tiny link on RSCO’s website.
However, even this is problematic. Are parents supposed to piece together the bare-bones routes provided by CREC for each school in which they are interested? Even if this were a somewhat feasible task, the data is not easily adaptable in a PDF format. A spreadsheet would be more helpful because it would allow the route data to be transformed into a route map or processed by some other technological device. If someone were to need this data, they would have to transfer it by hand, a tedious, time-consuming process.
A parent might then turn to HPS’s transportation website, where information about “neighborhood” schools can be found. Though the focus here is on inter-district magnet schools, it is important to note that the two systems run together. HPS renders certain students ineligible for transportation if they live too close to their desired school.
By grade level, the thresholds read:
- K-1: 0.5 mi away from school
- 2-5: 1.0 mi
- 6-8: 1.5 mi
- 9-12: 2.0 mi
If a sixth grader lives 1.4 miles away from their desired school, they are ineligible for transportation. It is not obvious whether this radius measured in straight-line distance or driving/walking distance. If straight-line, this would result in artificially longer travel distances for students. The website is unclear about how this threshold is measured, an ambiguity that is quite problematic.
Again, the spotlight of this essay remains intentionally centered on inter-district magnet school transportation. The individual district provides intra-district magnet transportation; to compile this data would require analyzing all forty-three districts’ bus routes and guidelines. This task is not feasible for me—but we should take note that the complexity of the transportation issue is, in itself, absurdly problematic.
Like RSCO, the highlight of HPS’s website is a link to a third-party site: SMARTERHartford. Here, parents enter their home address and student’s grade level to receive a personalized map of public school. The pins on the map are color-coded to signify district, magnet/open choice, charter and technical schools. A star icon shows one’s home address to place it visually among the surrounding school options.
This tool is important for families to know about because it is the only tool, to my knowledge, that personalizes the unending mass of school data to each family. Though transportation data is not a part of this tool, families are able to visualize all of their choices as they relate to their location—which is immensely helpful for parents at any point in their search. Families could use this application to do an initial sweep of schools, perhaps limiting their options to schools within a certain radius of their home. This is doable by sorting the list below the map by “distance” (click on the header).
However, this tool is not as thorough or informative as it could be regarding to transportation. Again, we run into the problem of straight-line distance measurement. Of greater concern is that their transportation information is merely links to RSCO and/or HPS, which we have already established to be less-than-helpful. Though this tool customizes the dauntingly large ocean of information school choice providers allow parents, it is only a start. The next step is to combine all of the available transportation data into a single, dynamic, easy-to-use tool.
What Parents Need: A Better Tool
Parents need to have all of their transportation options presented to them in such a way that will help them draw meaningful conclusions about their school choices. Without information about day-to-day bus routes, transportation eligibility, and the school’s driving/walking distance from home or work, families cannot paint an adequate picture of their school options, and therefore are not likely to make the decision most representative of their needs. The next step in providing this data, then, is to design a tool that is comprehensive, accurate, and accessible.
The fastest and simplest answer to this problem is to improve upon the application already available from SMARTERHartford. Though this tool only currently offers rudimentary transportation information, it can be combined with other available information to be more helpful to families trying to understand their transportation options. An obvious but important improvement would be to add CREC’s bus routes to the map. After parents type in their address and see a visual of the schools surrounding their home location, information about bus pick up/drop off, bus ride length, and bus stop location could be provided. The tool could also show ineligibility for transportation to particular schools (i.e. if the school is too close to home).
If one clicks “See bus route,” a personalized, interactive bus route would appear and might look like this:
This web-based visual model is the most satisfactory solution for a variety of reasons. Because it is hosted on the web, families can input their own personal information, like home address and child’s grade level, and see immediate results that are specific to their own situations. This connects the impersonal, difficult-to-understand, jargon-heavy materials dispersed by the district and RSCO to families who would otherwise have a hard time understanding their options. It also allows for changes in information and policy to be easily implemented. Rather than reprinting paper brochures and other documents, transportation authorities could instantly update the tool to reflect changes in bus routes, school addresses, boundaries, and so forth. Finally, an ideal function of the tool would be a bus tracking application for current parents. Families could see, in real time, the whereabouts of their respective bus. This would be helpful for families who have far away bus stops—particularly in the cold, so that students are not standing in the dangerous Connecticut winter weather for too long. However, for the purposes of school choice, this addition is not necessary.
However, certain consequences inherent to the Internet are not to be ignored. Though the web is available to many, it is not accessible to all. Those without computers or devices with Internet capabilities would have a more challenging time using this tool. A way to mitigate this issue would be to have computers available at school choice fairs. Families could navigate the application there, with school choice counselors on site to help those who are not as comfortable with this technology. Though this might help to solve this problem, it is not a complete solution and should be considered and addressed with sensitivity.
Ultimately, a tool like this is significant progress in filling the holes left by existing school choice materials. In centralizing all of the information, parents are no longer forced to master the information of several websites and pamphlets; instead, this tool could be a one-stop application. Enabling parents to enter in their personal information allows them to see how each of their school options play into their daily lives. Because this sort of information is more understandable to families, a positive change in the school choice process is expected. Parents will be more informed and ultimately more comfortable with their choice—which will, in turn, inspire intentional and engaged school communities.
About Transportation. (2015, May 1). Retrieved from http://www.crec.org/transportation/index.php
Bus Routes. (2015, May 1). Retrieved from http://www.crec.org/transportation/crec_bus_routes.pdf
Opportunity Map. (2015, April 301). Retrieved from http://www.ctoca.org/opportunity_map
NT; CM; IF; AG and RU; LS. Field Notes. (2015, February).
Transportation. (2015, May 1). Retrieved from http://www.choiceeducation.org/transportation
Transportation Department. (2015, May 1). Retrieved from http://www.freewebs.com/hpstrans/
Transportation Guidelines. (2015, May 1). Retrieved from http://www.hartfordschools.org/parents/transportation/78-pages/349-transportation-guidelines
School Finder. (2015, May 1). Retrieved from http://smarterhartford.org/your-choice/school-finder/